Theatre Review: Belleville (Donmar Warehouse)

belleville donmar warehouse imogen poots amy herzog

Donmar Warehouse
by Amy Herzog
Directed by Michael Longhurst

Reviewer: Tom Baker

Playwright Amy Herzog understands the rhythms, vocal sparring, and awkwardness of good dialogue as nobody else does – barring maybe her peer Annie Baker. She is especially a maestro when it comes to the placement of fake laughter. Not sarcastic, or sycophantic, but instead the sort that paves over cracks in confidence, winks through the fourth wall at the ludicrousness of conversations, and suggests a shared way through social anxiety. This is an unusual phenomenon which is nonetheless, apparently, the cornerstone of American conversation.

Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman, writing about a holiday to Germany, found that the filler laughter he used to get by didn’t have the same “aw-shucks” charm when he tried it abroad. The bartenders, shop clerks, and locals he met just thought he looked a bit weird as he giggled, seemingly at random, amidst small talk. Herzog’s Belleville, concerning as it does the contrasting relationships between an American and French married couple, features a lot of fake laughing. The laughter from the audience, however – even when it’s rooted in profound discomfort – is undoubtedly the real thing.

The expats here are Abby (Imogen Poots) and Zack (James Norton), sharing a chic Parisian apartment and pretending like they have their shit together. They certainly do a good impression of a happily married couple, but discord is sewn first when Abby returns to the flat to find her beau a) home early from work, and b) masturbating to online porn in their bedroom. Then there’s the arrival of landlord Alioune (Malachi Kirby), who brings dire warnings for Zack that – unknown to Abby – he’s seriously tardy on the past four months of rent. From here the play, receiving its UK premiere at the Donmar under the direction of Michael Longhurst, reveals itself to be a satirical firecracker of white privilege, self-delusion, and interpersonal tension.

Compared to his tenants, who are pushing thirty, 25-year-old Alioune actually has got his shit together. He’s happily married to Amina (Faith Alabi), running a property management business, and has little need for fake laughter in his conversations. Given the strength of Kirby and Alabi’s performances, compared to their limited stage time, it’s unfortunate that their (black, Muslim) characters are used mainly as a level-headed counterpoint to the more volatile white, American couple. Herzog’s satirical bent is at least committed to addressing the privilege which allows Zack and Abby to remain in Paris, despite having no actual money, ambition, prospects, or possibly even affection for each other; things which wouldn’t be an option for their landlord and lady.

We’re told that Abby is an aspiring actress currently working as a yoga teacher, although her class has yet to recruit any steady students. He’s a med school graduate researching pediatric AIDs, who somehow finds it easy to blow off work for days at a time. Both discuss their professions with an ironic, jokey remove not befitting of the melancholy inherent in their respective situations. We never see them “doing” their work, while Alioune and Amina only ever get the chance to appear in a professional capacity.

Before it all starts to sound a bit Girls, know that Poots imbues Abby, recently weaned off her antidepressants, with a nervous kinetic energy and a moral dignity that helps her avoid the cliche of the “educated American neurotic” stock character. She’s prone to rambling, accidentally dropping devastating self-analyses into everyday conversation (handing Alioune a tupperware box of homemade gingerbread cookies and asking after his partner, she first chides herself for acting exactly like the sort of stereotypical housewife she despises, then reassures the room she can still like itself whilst holding all the traits of somebody she hates) and stubbing her toe in moments of spaghetti-limbed domestic slapstick, both of which are incredibly endearing and very funny.

belleville donmar warehouse imogen poots james norton rehearsal

Belleville‘s script stages the awkwardness of Zack and Abby’s interactions with Amina and Alioune with a similarly light, broad humour, and Kirby is great fun during his first scene with Poots, deadpan to a fault as she stands before him reeling off a string of personal issues disguised as small talk. Herzog also gives Poots’s character an intelligence and vulnerability, though, and the relationship between her and Norton a sweetness and intimacy which at first appears genuine. They drape themselves over each other, share the semi-ironic pet name “homie,” and generally exhibit all the signs of peaceful cohabitation. You’re rooting for them, which makes the inevitable tragedy all the more difficult to behold.

Because it’s this self-same intimacy which also what allows to notice when the other is acting shady, and subsequently exploit their most intimate vulnerabilities. Zack is especially keen to bring up Abby’s exes, her past of heavy drinking in college, and the recent death of her mother. The latter has caused her to develop a pathological obsession with her phone, should another tragedy strike whilst they’re abroad.

As their relationship becomes more fraught, he cruelly begins keeping her phone from her, claiming she’s acting “crazy”. Norton, too, deserves much credit for the way his voice cracks and the colour drains from his face at the moments he’s caught out, which happens plenty more times after the opening interruption of his private time. That’s the first sign we get of their fracturing relationship but, as soon becomes clear, there have been plenty more before we met them. By the final act, things have escalated considerably, with the penultimate scene perhaps laying things on a little too thick.

Stage designer Tom Scutt’s recreation of a Parisian boho flat is warm and appears authentically lived in, helped in no small part for the authentically soft interior lighting of Natasha Chivers; at one point things take a turn for the filmic when, during a sex scene, the lights fade tastefully to black. The ambient sound work by Ben and Max Ringham, with passing sirens and thumping bass heard from cars along with birdsong and the sound of a light passing breeze from the windows, suggest as much at a larger world outside Abby and Zack’s home, and their petty grievances, as much as their scenes with their landlords.

In fact, it is the quieter denouement between Kirby and Alabi’s characters that is much more subtly devastating than Zack and Abby’s last moments on stage, precisely because it avoids melodrama and depicts a far richer, more stable relationship in a more simple manner. We spend far less time with this younger, black Muslim couple (Alioune is Senegalese, Amina a French national, each in a country not known for its progressive racial politics), but their partnership is nonetheless equally well realised.

At the final curtain, the quiet intimacy shared by Kirby and Alabi’s characters is what stop the play from becoming too morose to bear. Instead, Belleville is a lively, incisive play about lies, grief, conversational prolix and the casual cruelty between couples.

Runs until: February 3rd 2018 at Donmar Warehouse